Answer Man

Bill James is the father of sports sabermetrics

Mickey Mantle vs. Willie Mays: Bill James’ sabermetrics will help you compare the two Hall of Famers.
Mickey Mantle vs. Willie Mays: Bill James’ sabermetrics will help you compare the two Hall of Famers.

Q: Every time I turn on a baseball game or sports talk show, I now constantly am bombarded with the word “sabermetrics.” What are sabermetrics, who invented them and why are they called that?

N.G., of Waterloo

A: Whether you’re a baseball owner, manager, player or just Joe Bleacherbum, you probably love numbers as much as any mathematician. Maybe more.

No, the sheer beauty of watching Chris Davis crush another home run or Jason Heyward make an acrobatic diving snare in right isn’t nearly enough to satisfy either those in the game or those watching it. We have to know who’s leading the batting race or if anyone has a chance at winning the sacred Triple Crown. Halfway through the season, Cardinal fans were buzzing about the possibility that Redbird pitchers might post the lowest staff ERA in decades. Now the hot stove league is ablaze with talk of possible trades and what new players might bring to a club in terms of on-base and fielding percentages.

But for people like Bill James, such everyday stats as batting average, slugging percentage and win-loss records barely scratch the surface of analyzing a player’s ability or value to a team. Since the mid-1970s, he has been concocting increasingly esoteric statistics while writing more than two dozen books on baseball history and numbers. Here’s just a few of his innovations: Temperature gauge (how hot or cold a player is), game score (the potential strength of a pitcher in any particular game), range factor (a player’s defensive prowess), Major League equivalency (using someone’s minor league numbers to judge his big-league potential), and win shares/similarity scores (ways to compare Babe Ruth to Matt Holliday).

In 1980, James called this ever-expanding line of numerical analysis “sabermetrics,” using “saber” to honor SABR — the Society for American Baseball Research. In addition to James, SABR boasts 6,000 other dyed-in-the-wool baseball lovers worldwide with a variety of interests, including, of course, statistics (or metrics). James defined sabermetrics as the never-ending “search for objective knowledge about baseball.”

“Thus,” wrote David Grabiner in his 1994 book, “The Sabermetric Manifesto, “sabermetrics attempts to answer objective questions about baseball, such as ‘Which player on the Red Sox contributed the most to the team’s offense?’ or ‘How many home runs will Ken Griffey hit next year?’ It cannot deal with the subjective judgments which are also important to the game, such as ‘Who is your favorite player?’ or ‘That was a great game!’”

Although the term is relatively new, the idea is almost as old as the game itself. Way back in 1859, English-born American sportswriter Henry Chadwick published the first box score and began keeping track of hits, home runs and the like, which would lead to batting average and other offensive statistics. In the 1940s, Branch Rickey hired statistician Allan Roth to evaluate players for the Brooklyn Dodgers. In 1964, Earnshaw Cook grabbed national attention with his book “Percentage Baseball,” even though it was largely dismissed by those in baseball circles.

But the scoffers were like the people who told Columbus the world was flat. The advent of the computer age and the growing ease of number-crunching allowed ever more complexity to be added to the world of baseball numbers. In the early 1970s, for example, Baltimore’s Davey Johnson wrote a FORTRAN program to prove (unsuccessfully) to manager Earl Weaver that Johnson should be batting second in the lineup. Later, while managing the New York Mets, Johnson would use a computer to compile advanced metrics on team statistics.

But everyone seems to credit James for the concept’s flowering in the past 40 years despite a most inauspicious start. Born in Holton, Kan., he became the state’s last person sent to fight in Vietnam. He returned to add a degree in education to his bachelor’s in English and economics from the University of Kansas.

James soon could have earned a Ph.D. in baseball. While working as a night security guard at a Van Camp’s pork-and-beans cannery, the obsessive fan began writing baseball articles. But instead of mere game recaps or interviews with players and managers, his writing often began with a question — which pitchers and catchers allow the most stolen bases? — followed by an answer teeming with statistics and wit.

At first, many editors thought his ideas were coming out of left field, so to speak, so James did something that since has become mainstream: In 1977, the 27-year-old began self-publishing an annual book entitled “The Bill James Baseball Abstract.” The very first edition featured 80 pages filled with James’ analysis of box scores from the 1976 season.

Eventually, his books earned praise from Sports Illustrated, and sales increased tenfold by 1982, earning him a contract with a national publisher. Soon, sabermetrics became the rage. Runs created, the Brock2 System and the Pythagorean Winning Percentage were added to the world of baseball stats. In-depth discussions of whether Willie Mays was faster than Mickey Mantle could be based on everything from the number of triples hit to bases stolen.

In 2006, James was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine. And if you need further proof of why James deserves the notoriety, just watch “Moneyball,” the 2011 sports flick that tells how Billy Beane used sabermetrics to find undervalued players who would take the Oakland A’s with its minuscule payroll to the playoffs in 2002. The book on which it is based — “Moneyball” by Michael Lewis — dedicates a chapter to James, who, as a special adviser, would earn three World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox in 2004, 2007 and 2013.

For an in-depth look at sabermetrics, go to www.sabr.org/sabermetrics.

Today’s trivia

Noise can alter your sense of taste. True or false?

Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: “Space. The final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Yorktown ... ” That’s what viewers almost heard on Sept. 8, 1966, when the original “Star Trek” series debuted on NBC-TV. In his initial outline of the series, creator Gene Roddenberry named his ship after the site of the decisive 1781 Revolutionary War battle (and a subsequent series of U.S. Navy ships), according to “The Making of Star Trek” by Roddenberry and Stephen Whitfield. He later rechristened the ship “USS Enterprise.” and the rest is history. If you’re wondering about the NCC-1701, it’s comparable to a U.S. Navy hull number. The NCC stands for Naval Construction Contract. The 1701 has a number of possible explanations, but apparently it was series art director Matt Jefferies’ 17th cruiser design and the Enterprise was the first in the series, hence 1701. USS, of course, means United Space Ship and the Enterprise was a member of the Starship Class, according to Roddenberry’s book. The original show, along with the long series of followup movies and spinoffs, eventually would see several USS Yorktowns, including the NCC-1717 and NCC-61137.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer

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